Anchorage — He's the king of the crease for Minnesota State-Mankato these days, but a few months ago Stephon Williams of Fairbanks was just another freshman trying to find his way in college hockey.
"I didn't come into the year expecting, 'Hey, I'm gonna win 11 games my freshman year' or 'I'm gonna play 18 games,' '' Williams said. "I definitely came in wanting to play. But I didn't feel I deserved anything as a freshman. Everything had to be earned.''
So far, so good.
Williams, the Alaska player of the year for Lathrop in 2009 after leading the Malemutes to the state title as a sophomore, has made 15 consecutive starts for the 14th-ranked Mavericks and will start tonight when they open a Western College Hockey Association series against UAA at Sullivan Arena.
Williams has proved instrumental in helping the Mavericks (14-8-2, 8-8-0 WCHA) become Team Turnaround in the 12-team league. First-year coach Mike Hastings and his crew have already surpassed last season's 12 wins overall and matched last season's eight wins in conference. Williams, 19, has gone 11-6-1 with a 1.84 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and three shutouts.
In the Mavericks' December sweep of UAA in December -- 3-1 and 3-0 -- Williams stopped 36 shots of 37 shots and earned the second of his three shutouts.
Still, the turning point in his rookie season came two weeks earlier, when he stopped 65 of 69 shots in a pair of 4-2 wins at Wisconsin, where the student section sits behind the visiting goalie in the first and third periods, and loves to serenade him with chants of "Sieve! Sieve! Sieve!'' when he surrenders a goal.
"That was my first win, our first sweep, in Wisconsin, a premier WCHA team,'' said Williams, who played two seasons in the U.S. Hockey League after leaving home following his junior year of high school. "I love playing in front of away crowds. The crowd, more than anything, gets me pumped up. That series was huge for my confidence. I knew I could play at this level.''
That sweep kick-started a team that began the season 1-5-0 in the WCHA, and it began a seven-game league winning streak and a stretch in which Minnesota State-Mankato went 11-1-0.
"Someone needed to grab the ball and run with it,'' Hastings said. "He did.''
While Williams continued to shine, Hasting said, the rookie didn't seem to success for granted.
"I haven't seen a change in him as far as his work ethic and personality, or any change in the way he is on-ice or off-ice,'' Hastings said.
Sitting in eighth place, just one point out of sixth, the Mavericks are coming off two difficult home losses -- Wisconsin avenged the Mavericks' November sweep in Madison with 4-3 and 2-1 overtime wins last week, the second victory coming in the waning seconds of extra time.
This weekend, Williams will have his own cheering section at Sullivan Arena. He said his parents, grandparents and brothers will attend, and several Fairbanks high school teams are in town.
"At the end of the day, I'm here on a business trip,'' Williams said. "We're here to get two WCHA wins. But it's definitely a bonus to be able to play in front of all my family and some friends.''
The WCHA on Thursday welcomed Alabama-Huntsville as a new member, starting next fall, which will make the reconstituted league a 10-team circuit.
The Chargers, who have been an independent program since College Hockey America folded following the 2009-10 season, currently are one of just two Division I independents -- the other, Penn State, next season begins play in the Big Ten conference in its debut season.
Next season, the WCHA will consist of UAA, UAF, Minnesota State-Mankato, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Bowling Green, Ferris State and Alabama-Huntsville.
Mavericks senior center Eli Zuck of Anchorage leads the team in plus-minus at plus-10. A principal penalty killer, Zuck owns 2-7--9 totals in 22 games.
When the Mavericks swept the Seawolves in Minnesota in early December, Minnesota State-Mankato outshot UAA by a combined 75-37. That's one of four WCHA series this season in which the Seawolves have mustered 37 shots or fewer. They are 0-7-1 in those games.
UAA is trying to unburden itself of an eight-game losing streak that ties for the fifth-longest in program history and ties for the second-longest in coach Dave Shyiak's eight-season tenure.
A Skate With The Seawolves session is scheduled 1-3 p.m. Sunday at UAA's Wells Fargo Sports Complex rink. Hosted by the Seawolf Athletic Association Blueliners, the event will include free hot dogs and hot chocolate, and there will also be door prizes and music.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.